Mike Bithell: "I Couldn't Write a Genderless Character"

Thomas Was Alone's creator on why his new game only has a male protagonist.

News by Pete Davison, .

One of the nice things about the diversity of the modern games industry is that a lot of independent creators, not beholden to specific publishers, are more than willing to talk openly about their creative and technical processes. Social media helps fans get closer than ever to their favorite developers -- and to engage in some interesting discussions.

One such developer who enjoys openly discussing his thoughts is Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone and the upcoming Volume. Bithell took to Twitter over the weekend to explain some of his creative decisions about his new game -- specifically, why it only had a male protagonist, and why there wasn't an equality-friendly "gender switch" to allow players to enjoy the game as a female character if they desired.

"It's pretty cool that we're at a point in the gender conversation in games where I'm being challenged for choosing a male protagonist," he began, acknowledging that the decision had given some of his followers pause. "Short version: I wanted to tell a story about a specific kind of male hero, and I wanted to cast a specific actor. Both pretty good reasons."

I reached out to Bithell to find out exactly what he meant by "a specific kind of male hero," but he declined to comment further, noting that further information about Volume's story and protagonist -- currently known only as "[redacted]" would emerge in October. He did, however, continue to engage in discussions with others on Twitter, which helped clarify his position somewhat.

"I don't think gender toggles are good for a number of games," he explained. "You end up with agendered characters with swapped out voice actors -- which is fine if that's what you're exploring, but I'm not. I specifically want to explore male heroism. This'll make more sense later."

When asked "why not just have two player models?" by Twitter user @theOneNallen, Bithell reiterated that he felt "toggles mean genderless characters, which is fine, but inappropriate here. Gender is vital and important to identity. I couldn't write a genderless character.

"Weirdly, [redacted] started female in my head, primarily because of the gender discussion," continued Bithell. "[He] became male for story/casting reasons later. I find the discussion fascinating, and will continue to engage on it.

"I don't think the endgame is togglable main characters," he concluded. "I think it's more games in general, and more female stars specifically... and more races, sexualities, nationalities. That this debate about 12 months ago reset a lot of people's default character for a new game to female, we're only now starting to see the result -- and then we chat about how the privileged, white, straight, cis male folks like me can contribute meaningfully."

Bithell's position is pretty clear: it doesn't make sense for him to include both male and female characters in his game from either a creative or a financial standpoint, and thus he is prioritizing his artistic vision for the protagonist over what we might call, for want of a better word, "inclusivity" -- though that's something of a loaded term.

Volume's story is about male heroism, which doesn't necessarily mean that those who don't match the gender, race, sexuality or nationality of the protagonist can't appreciate it -- simply that this is the story Bithell has chosen to write and tell through his game. He's also made it abundantly clear that he's not at all against the prospect of games where you can choose to play as male or female characters -- it's just not appropriate for what he's trying to achieve with Volume.

And what is that, exactly? We'll have to wait until next month to find out more. In the meantime, you can follow Bithell on Twitter and keep up to date on Volume's development via the official site.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 6

  • Avatar for Suzusiiro #1 Suzusiiro 4 years ago
    Gender choices work and should be encouraged when you have a blank slate/silent protagonist (Pokemon, Persona) or a MC who the player defines the personality of (Fallout, Mass Effect,) but not when your game is strongly defined by your protagonist's appearance, personality, and actions, be it story-wise (Uncharted, most JRPGs) or brand-wise (Zelda, Metroid, Mario, Tomb Raider.)
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Bla1ne #2 Bla1ne 4 years ago
    I think it's great that we're at that point in the gender in games discussion, but personally I can't wait until we're at the point where we're not talking about it anymore. I can't wait until a creator can make a game with a male or female character, and not have to explain why he did it that way and not the other way around, and especially not sound apologetic about having only a male protagonist.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for KerotanEater #3 KerotanEater 4 years ago
    Yes, I'm not sure it was fair on Mr Bithell. Perhaps if he made a game with a cast of characters and every single one was a white male Caucasian in his 30s, that would be a thing worth bringing up.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for pjedavison #4 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @KerotanEater It's worth noting he started this discussion himself -- and I felt it was one worth sharing for those not on Twitter, given the amount of discussion on gender issues in the industry today.

    I found it particularly interesting because while it's still positive on gender issues, it's not the usual "all games should have male and female characters" angle; it was, to my mind, good to see a creator actually standing up for his artistic vision.

    I do kind of agree with@Bla1ne though -- wouldn't it be wonderful to get to a point where people don't have to justify their creative choices, regardless of what they are?
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #5 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    I agree with Mike on this - as soon as your character can talk and has a personality, you need to think hard about whether you want them to be perfectly gender neutral or if you want to take advantage of writing for a specific gender. It won't be true to either gender if you simply swap dialogue. Also I think you need to take care when writing for a gender other than your own that you don't simply ape a stereotype or your own personal prejudice.
    Sign in to Reply